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Whitt and Perlich on Myth and Science Fiction

I recently mentioned a new book that looked very interesting to me, Sith, Slayers, Stargates and Cyborgs: Modern Mythology and the New Millennium (Peter Lang Publishers, 2007), edited by David Whitt and John Perlich. Dr. David Whitt is Associate Professor of Communication at Nebraska Wesleyan University, and Dr. John Perlich is Associate Professor of Communication at Hastings College in Nebraska. I contacted David and John and they were were all too willing to discuss this fascinating book. After reviewing some of the chapters we had an opportunity to discuss aspects of the book.

TheoFantastique: David and John, thanks for editing such a great book, and making some time to discuss it here. To begin with, how did the idea of dealing with myth, archetype and contemporary science fiction as a collaborative volume first come about?

David Whitt: John will say it was my idea because I wrote my doctoral dissertation examining cyborgs through texts such as The Matrix, Star Trek (specifically, The Borg) and Japanese anime. Then in 2004 we were both on a panel at the National Communication Association Conference in Chicago titled The Matrix, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter: Modern Mythology in the New Millennium. Much to our surprise the panel was incredibly well attended and the feedback from the audience during and after the session was remarkable. This overwhelmingly positive response then gave John the idea that we should do a book. So, don’t listen to John. It really was HIS idea!

John Perlich: To be honest the idea was Dave’s! I am a huge science fiction fan so when Dave told me about his dissertation I asked him to send me a copy. After reading his dissertation I was stunned by the significance of Frankenstein myth in contemporary culture and told him that his work should be published. Dave asked me to collaborate with him on a conference submission that was presented in 2004—the reception was so positive that we decided to develop an anthology…and here we are.

TheoFantastique: As you lay the groundwork for the volume you discuss myth. You draw upon the work of Joseph Campbell and others, and as you do this, how are you defining myth and how do you see this connected to science fiction and fantasy?

John Perlich: I’m a devoted fan of Campbell’s work and believe that myth is something we live, not just something we read about. From the time we are born, all of us imagine a story for our lives. That story includes details (possibly including marriage, career aspirations, success, perseverance) and could be characterized as a myth. However, our stories are not unique—we borrow from other stories to create a grand yet personal myth. Science fiction and fantasy fit because they are either reshaping the classic time-honored myths or retelling those myths. The result of these “tellings” is an opportunity to develop our own personal myth. Feminist scholars, for example, will note that classic mythology does not always give positive exemplars for women. But fantasy and science fiction texts provide opportunity for new stories, new myths, new ideas (and ideologies). You’ll notice by my examples that whether highly personal or classic, myths have structure, order, and coherence.

TheoFantastique: You reference science fiction and fantasy as a “New Mythology” for our times. What do you mean by this, and how is it that we have this paradoxical situation where many people explore science fiction in mythic ways as the “music of the spheres,” and yet as you note “some authors also demonstrate the folly of those who are seemingly deaf to the ‘song of the universe’”?

David Whitt: The cover of our book, which was John’s idea, expresses this idea well. It’s an image of earth against a solar eclipse. The cyclical nature of the image suggests that while the centuries may change, the mythic stories we tell are timeless. In terms of the phrase “New Mythology” I must give credit to another source. When writing my dissertation and having to defend the legitimacy of studying science fiction I found THE perfect quote from Voytilla (1999) who stated that “science fiction and fantasy are our New Mythology and provide an important canvas to explore society’s issues.” Historically this certainly has been true as this genre has provided commentary on science, technology, politics, religion, and culture. Everyone from Jules Verne to J.K. Rowling owes a great debt to mythology.

John Perlich: The classic structures known as myth are not fixed but fluid and evolving. As I said before, myths are lived. Therefore, it is crucial that we not simply retell classic mythologies, but actually spend time reinventing mythology. I believe my ideological example above makes the point fairly well; reinventing myth often involves finding room for new voices, not simply providing a platform for those who have been at the podium for quite some time.

TheoFantastique: In addition to editing the volume each of you contributed chapters from your own areas of interest. John, you wrote on the Star Wars films and addressed how George Lucas may have lost his way in the development of his mythos as he moved from his first trilogy to his second trilogy of films. I share this sentiment, but it is all the more striking when we consider Lucas’s dialogue with Campbell along the way as he produced his mythic tale. Can you briefly describe your thesis, and perhaps touch on your theories as to why Lucas may have strayed, even with close proximity to Campbell in the early stages of his mythic development?

John Perlich: This would be a good opportunity for me to tell your readers that they should buy the book for the answer, but you deserve more. LOL. As noted in the book I approached my deconstruction of the Star Wars mythos not as a skeptic but as a life-long fan. That is why it was somewhat painful for me to indict the master of this mythology. To put my thesis as simply as possible, sometimes “less is more,” and in the case of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, it seemed like an odd choice when the decision was made to quantify the mystical energy known as “the Force.” When followed to a logical conclusion this decision has tremendous implications regarding myths that speak to us about transcendence and redemption.

TheoFantastique: David, do you have any thoughts or comments on this?

David Whitt: To say that I was disappointed with the prequels in an understatement. John’s chapter articulates quite well how Lucas abandoned the mythic foundation so strong in the original trilogy. In fact, by the time I was done reading his chapter I was more upset with Lucas than I was before!

TheoFantastique: John, I was intrigued near the conclusion of your chapter with your passing reference to “other new mythologies” where you mention Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Some time ago I posted some auteur exploration of this film on this blog and as I track what brings readers here the mythic and archetypal dimensions of this film are of ongoing interest to many. Would either of you like to say a few things about del Toro and his mythmaking, particularly in Pan’s Labyrinth?

John Perlich: Yes! What a fabulous work. When I make reference to “myths that speak to us about transcendence and redemption,” I speak of this work (and many notable others). The sacrifice of the protagonist in this film is profound (especially as it relates with transcendence and redemption). It’s hard to speak of the accomplishment that del Toro achieved with El Laberinto del Fauno without ruining the plotline, so I’ll just recommend it for everyone (except perhaps small children).

David Whitt: What I loved about Pan’s Labyrinth is how it takes you on an emotional journey that weaves the personal against the backdrop of the political. PL left a powerful impression upon me when I saw it in the theater. I like to think of PL as a bedtime story for adults rather than children.

TheoFantastique: David, your chapter in the volume picks up the Frankenstein myth and applies it to the issues of technology and cybernetics, particularly with application to the Teen Titans comic and television cartoon. Can you sketch your thesis for us, and then touch on how the Frankenstein myth continues to work itself out in a variety of pop culture phenomenon such as Teen Titans?

David Whitt: For years I have been interested in cyborg film and television and how these texts comment on our human development. One area of study I thought was lacking was how our human/machine merger impacts children and their attitudes toward this technology. I became intrigued with the character Cyborg from Teen Titans and his struggle to maintain his humanity and individuality within a cybernetic body. The parallels to Frankenstein seemed obvious so I wanted to explore this more critically.

TheoFantastique: How do you see such contemporary interactions with the myth shaping the attitudes of youth to a technologically-driven society and the question of our human identity in relation to such technology?

David Whitt: I argue that Cyborg initially connects with teens on a mythic level because of their popular culture knowledge of Frankenstein (Halloween, Frankenberry, The Munsters). Additionally, children can relate to this character because he talks and acts like they do, and more importantly, embraces technology. Certainly today’s youth are more technologically savvy than their parents and through a character like Cyborg they see themselves. Cyborg’s struggle with identity teaches important lessons to children about what it means to be human as we continue our inevitable cyborg development.

TheoFantastique: I also appreciated the chapter that looked at how Joss Whedon modified and perhaps even subverted the heroes quest story by not only modifying its traditional gender expressions, but also moving from the one to the many. Can you sketch a little of the discussion for us in the book?

David Whitt: Cochran and Edwards examine the archetypes of myth and how Whedon basically plays with these archetypes in relation to the “Scoobies” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This chapter is one of my favorites.

John Perlich: As I noted before, mythology is fluid and lived. Therefore, making room for new voices becomes an interesting point of discussion for comparative mythologists (like Campbell). Slayer fans will enjoy Cochran and Edward’s treatment of the Buffy series very much.

TheoFantastique: In your view, can we anticipate a long and healthy future for science fiction and fantasy in providing a medium for the engagement of myth and the creation of new mythologies in the new millennium?

John Perlich: I have no reservations on this subject matter—most definitely. Science fiction and fantasy genres offer liberating forums and avenues that were popularized with the original Star Trek. We continue to see these avenues and opportunities unfolding in ways that both affirm and critique ideology and modernity.

David Whitt: Absolutely! In fact, with Hollywood finally discovering, or should I say re-discovering, the mythic power of children’s stories and comic book superheroes the immediate future of sci-fi fantasy looks very promising.

TheoFantastique: John and David, thanks again for your willingness to discuss this book. I hope you continue such exploration in future projects.

David and John: Our pleasure! We should mention that we recently posted a call for papers regarding our next project There and Back Again: Mythology in the New Millennium. This volume will be a natural extension of the work in Sith, Slayers, Stargates and Cyborgs. However, instead of focusing primarily on science fiction this collection will focus on fantasy texts. If anyone is interested in submitting a proposal please refer to the call posted on h-net for more details or feel free to contact either John at jperlich@hastings.edu or David at dfw@NebrWesleyan.edu.

TheoFantastique: This next project sounds great. Please keep TheoFantastique in mind for discussing and promoting this volume when it is completed. I hope this interview helps promote your current volume, and perhaps sends contributors your way for the next one. Thanks again.

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There are 2 Comments to "Whitt and Perlich on Myth and Science Fiction"

  • | says:

    [...] This is the case with the editors of the forthcoming book Millennial Mythmaking: Essays on the Power of Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, Films and Games (McFarland, 2010). I first encountered the work of John Perlich and David Whitt as editors of their first book along similar lines, Sith, Slayers, Stargates, + Cyborgs: Modern Mythology in the New Millennium (Peter Lang Publishing, 2008). They graciously provided me with samples from this volume and then consented to an informative interview here. [...]

  • [...] the past I had an opportunity to interview David Whitt and John Perlich with the first book they co-edited, Sith, Slayers, Stargates and [...]

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